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Time managementHow to use your time efficiently

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Study, just like life, places many demands on your time. The demands are not only many but varying. Some weeks you may have little to do, while others you have far too many tasks to complete: essays to write, presentations to give, lectures to attend, a birthday party for a friend, and so on and so forth. At school your teacher probably gave you pressure to work and monitored your progress, and when you are in employment your employer or supervisor will determine your workload and check how you are doing. At university, you are more responsible for managing your time. Your tutors are likely to check the final assignment very carefully (the product), but are unlikely to check how you complete it (the process). In order to succeed you therefore need to learn how to manage your time well. Good time management comprises various factors. The following are considered on this page:

At the end of the page there is also a flowchart which summarises the processes above.

Identifying targets

An important first step in managing your time is to clearly identify all the tasks you have to complete. This would create a simple list, which on its own would not be very useful. To make it more helpful you can add the date by which each task must be completed (the deadline), and make a note of why each one is important. These tasks will mostly be study tasks, though there will also be important life events which you need to plan for (e.g. organising a birthday party, getting ready for a holiday), so you need to include these as well.

A simple example, for two tasks, is shown below.

Task Deadline Why is it important?
Write Economics essay Next Monday It is worth 5% of my grade
Prepare for Clarissa's wedding Two weeks from today She's my best friend


Once you have successfully identified your targets, your next step is to decide which ones to tackle first. You can do this by prioritising them. The first step in doing this is to consider how urgent and how important each one is. If something is both urgent and important, then you should do it now (or as soon as you can). If it is urgent but not important, you need to consider whether you have time to complete it. If it is important but not urgent, you should begin it before it becomes urgent. If it is neither urgent nor important, don't do it: your time is too precious!

The diagram below summarises these ideas.

Is it important? Yes Do it as soon as you can
Is it urgent? Yes No Do it if you can
No Is it important? Yes Do it before it gets urgent
No Don't do it

Urgent Not urgent
Important Do it now! Do it soon, before it becomes urgent
Not important Do it if you have time Don't do it

Of course, almost all of the tasks on your list are going to be important to you (that's why you put them on your list), and all of them are going to be relatively urgent. What might help is to quantify them (give them a number) as follows:

0 = not urgent/important, 1 = a little urgent/important, 2 = fairly urgent/important, 3 = very urgent/important

You can then use this to create a 'priority index' by multiplying the numbers together. If something is very urgent and very important, it would have a priority index of 3 x 3 = 9, which means it should be higher on your list than something which is very urgent but only a little important, which would have a priority index of 3 x 1 = 3.

The example above is continued below to show how the tasks can be prioritised. Clearly writing the Economics essay (priority index 4) is going to be a higher priority than preparing for the wedding (priority index 3).

Task Deadline Urgency (0-3) Why is it important? Importance (0-3) Priority index
Write Economics essay Next Tuesday 2 It is worth 5% of my grade 2 4
Prepare for Clarissa's wedding Two weeks from today 1 She's my best friend 3 3
Task Write Economics essay Prepare for Clarissa's wedding
Deadline Next Tuesday Two weeks from today
Urgency (0-3) 2 1
Why is it important? It is worth 5% of my grade She's my best friend
Importance (0-3) 2 3
Priority index 4 3

Breaking down tasks

Many of your tasks at university are going to take you many hours, and the work will need to be spread over several days or weeks. In order to plan for these more effectively, it is useful to break each task down into smaller, more manageable 'sub-tasks'. When doing this, you should try to make your sub-tasks SMART, in other words, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. For example, if you have one hour to spare, do not decide to do something like 'find sources for report and take notes'. This is too general (what kind of sources?), not easy to measure (how will you know if you have enough sources?), and is likely to take you far more than one hour, which means it is not achievable in the time you have. A better task would be 'find 2 journal articles for report'. This is a specific task, which you can measure (by counting how many articles you have), and it is achievable in the time you have allotted (one hour).

Below is an example of how the Economics essay task above could be broken down into sub-tasks.

Sub-task How long? When?
Understand title. Discuss with classmates/tutor 30' Today's Economics tutorial - 11 a.m.
Brainstorm ideas 40' Today - 2 p.m.
Research introduction, find three articles 2 hours Tomorrow - 9-11 a.m.
Read articles, take notes 2 hours Tomorrow - 1-3 p.m.
Begin reference section, using three articles 20' Tomorrow - 3 p.m.
Write outline for introduction 1 hour Wed, after lectures - 1 p.m.
Continue research, find three articles for main body 2 hours Wed - 2 p.m.

Creating a calendar or timetable

In order to keep track of the tasks and sub-tasks you need to do, it is useful to keep either a calendar, a timetable, or both. A calendar will help you remember the bigger picture, i.e. the dates for the targets you listed. A timetable, especially an hourly timetable, will make planning sub-tasks easier. Examples of both are given below.


Below is a simple calendar for the two targets identified above.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
17 18 19 20 21 22
Economics essay deadline
25 26 27 28 29
Clarissa's wedding!
31 1 2 3 4 5
Mon Tue Wed
17 18
Economics essay deadline
Clarissa's wedding!
31 1


Below is an example of an hourly timetable. It includes the sub-tasks above for writing the Economics essay (in yellow). Also blocked in (in green) are the student's regular activities: lectures, tutorials, etc.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
8.00 - 9.00 Lecture Tutorial Lecture
9.00 - 10.00 Find 3 sources for intro Tutorial
10.00 - 11.00 Tutorial Lecture
11.00 - 12.00 Tutorial - discuss title Tutorial Lecture Tutorial
12.00 - 1.00
1.00 - 2.00 Lecture Read articles, take notes Write outline for intro Tutorial
2.00 - 3.00 Brainstorm ideas for essay Find 3 sources for main body Football match
3.00 - 4.00 Begin reference section
Mon Tue Wed
8.00 - 9.00 Lecture Tutorial Lecture
9.00 - 10.00 Find 3 sources for intro
10.00 - 11.00 Tutorial Lecture
11.00 - 12.00 Tutorial - discuss title Tutorial Lecture
12.00 - 1.00
1.00 - 2.00 Lecture Read articles, take notes Write outline for intro
2.00 - 3.00 Brainstorm ideas for essay Find 3 sources for main body
3.00 - 4.00 Begin reference section


In short, organising your time effectively is a matter of identifying targets, priotising them, creating sub-tasks, and using a calendar or timetable. The flowchart below summarises these stages.

Identify targets

Make a list of your targets, including deadlines and why they are important.

Identify how urgent and important each target is. Use a 'priority index'.
Break down tasks

Create more manageable sub-tasks. Be SMART.
Create a calendar or timetable

Use a calendar, a timetable, or both to help you complete tasks on time.


Drew, R. and Bingham, R. (2001) The Student Skills Guide, Aldershot: Gower Publishing

Smith, M. and Smith, G. (1990) A Study Skills Handbook, Oxford: Oxford University Press


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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 11 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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